In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3: First Blood


The provisioning stop in the Azores provided plenty of vegetables, but no spare whaleboats. As the ship headed over to Cape Verdes for hogs, Nickerson noticed the other crew members getting excited about something they saw on the cape: a wrecked ship. Somebody had already purchased the wreck, though, and had only one leaky old whaleboat left to sell. Every crew member was well aware that their lives could depend on the condition of these fragile cockleshells. When they arrived on the cape, the ship capsized to the amusement of the crew, but not to the amusement of the captain. They traded beans for 30 hogs, who turned the ship into a barnyard for the remainder of their journey.

Finally back on the water, a faint puff of white arose on the horizon and somebody yelled, "There she blows!" The ship was alive again and all was bustling as the men prepared to enter the whaleboats and harpoon the great beast. Once harpooned, it would be the boatsteerer's job to pull in the whale line and another fellow oiled the line and made sure it didn't tangle at the stern of the boat. The pecking order was to be determined by which crew could do this difficult job the fastest. The sperm whale would blow once for each minute it would spend underwater so experienced whalers could determine with remarkable precision where and when the whales would reappear on the surface. Words of savagery, excitement, and bloodlust filled the air as the men prepared to stab this gigantic passive creature, turning it into an angry, panicked monster who could easily dispose of the men with a quick swipe of its tail or with a toothy bite. Chase shouted for the Lawrence to harpoon the beast, but just at that moment a second whale had come up and given the men a tremendous whack, rendering them instantly airborne. No whale was to be captured on this day.

Nantucket whalemen were particularly known for their high speeds when they were on the job. They moved two knots faster than the whales and hacked away at the tendons of the tail until it was time for the mate to take up the twelve-foot-long killing lance to finish the job. Inevitably, finding the the most vital organs in a giant blubber-encased mammal was not easy, and frequently resulted in a rush of bright red gore out the whale's spout before the deed was done. When it lay motionless, many of the men had mixed feelings about the spectacle even though this was the supposed dream of every young man from Nantucket.

After a long trip back to the ship at a maximum speed of one mile per hour, they would peel the whale like an orange to remove the blubber, albeit in a less refined manner. By this point, the deck would be covered in oil and blood as the men sought to encase the 500 gallons of partially solidified spermaceti. After this, they were after a substance in the intestinal tract called ambergris that was worth more than its weight in gold, as it was used to make perfume. They would set the whale's carcass on fire to melt down the spermaceti; this produced the worst imaginable stench, which the sailors would never forget. By the time they finished cleaning their first whale, Nickerson and his friends had ruined almost every piece of clothing stored in their sea chests, forcing them to purchase additional clothing from the ship at outrageous prices, meaning that about 90 percent of their total earnings would be going straight back to the ship.

Suddenly a shriek came from the sea and the men thought they had lost somebody overboard. It turned out to be just a penguin.

After many hours of difficult labor, the men were particularly hungry and refused to eat the small portion of meat that was afforded them. This was a deciding moment for Pollard, because although the men's anger was justified in that their portions were too small, he had to assert his leadership. He was successful.


This chapter shows the constant conflict between heightened life-and-death scenarios and utter boredom permeates much of the men's time at sea. Killing a sperm whale involved far more patience than Nickerson had thought, yet the mastery of his fellow sailors in determining the exact location of the whale at different times was more than enough to keep him at the edge of his seat. When their first whale rejected their advances by dashing their boat to pieces, it became clear that despite the men's expertise in killing whales, the endeavor would prove difficult time and time again.

The search for ambergris represents the men's search for oil in the Pacific: despite experience, sometimes it felt impossibly unobtainable. We never learn whether the men were successful at gathering the substance, but its delicate scent reminded the men of their domestic lives back on Nantucket. This was especially the case when the sailors were confronted with the smell of burning whale carcass. While Thomas Nickerson had to throw out basically all of his clothes because he changed in the middle of the procedure, many of the other men recognized that they should arrange their wardrobe to prepare for such ruin.

Once again, Philbrick uses examples of difficult labor and toil to demonstrate a principal of good leadership. While the ship was not well-provisioned, he had to make due with what they had, so he enforced the small diet afforded the men, thereby enforcing his own rule. The question of whether he would be a good captain after his egregious error in the knockdown from the squall would be settled at this very moment. Pollard was a fishy man indeed.